Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Quote of the day

"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all is myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would react upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholoy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effect which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep to-night; but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of hundred million of his brethren." - Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, quoted from Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate

4 comments:

Alan said...

Or as articulated in Star Trek ("The Immunity Syndrome"):

Soock: I've noticed that about your people. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million.

You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.

McCoy: Suffer the death of thy neighbor, eh, Spock?
You wouldn't wish that on us, would you?

Spock: It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody.

Hume's Ghost said...

It's sad but true. It's a thought that has haunted me ever since reading a section in William Shawcross's Deliver Us From Evil about the most horrible things imagineable taking place on a daily basis in parts of Africa.

Alan said...

I can see how we evolved so that we can suffer and mourn a loss close to us, while lacking the capacity to invoke that kind of emotion for those distant.

Otherwise we would all be incapacitated with grief since there is tragedy every day.

It seems by nature, we are wired only to suffer the death of those we love or know well -- though sometimes we can empathize with strangers if it strikes a chord. Too bad we were not endowed to have a bit more empathy for those outside our identification horizons (but looking back there was no real evolutionary advantage to it -- at least not enough to outweigh the short term benefits of xenophobia) Just a tad bit more might have allowed us to avoid the tragedy of our war torn history.

It's also what Donne was getting at with:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
...
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Psyberian said...

We are also too indifferent when a leader of a country kills their own people at times. Have you ever seen Eddie Izzard’s stand-up Dressed to kill? It’s brilliant.

Here’s a taste of it:

And [Hitler] was a mass-murdering fuckhead, as many important historians have said. But there were other mass murderers that got away with it! Stalin killed many millions, died in his bed, well done there; Pol Pot killed 1.7 million Cambodians, died under house arrest at age 72, well done indeed! And the reason we let them get away with it is because they killed their own people, and we're sort of fine with that. “Ah, help yourself,” you know? “We've been trying to kill you for ages!” So kill your own people, right on there. Seems to be… Hitler killed people next door... “Oh… stupid man!” After a couple of years, we won't stand for that, will we?
Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can't even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know? Someone's killed 100,000 people. We're almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can't even get down the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death – lunch- death, death, death - afternoon tea - death, death, death - quick shower…"